Paula Tutman: What kept me sane during year of pandemic life

‘I’m in love with a guy named clay’

Paula's kitchen ceramics studio, Feb. 2021. (WDIV)

Almost a year after the pandemic shut down the world, I walked into my bedroom and announced to my husband that I had fallen in love. While working from home, I stumbled into a new relationship simply because I had the time to do so.

My life is so different than it was a year ago. This weekend, I took a look at my calendar for the month of February 2020. This time last year, I had at least one extra thing to do every single day that month except 3. Hair appointments. 2 mani-pedi appointments. A dental appointment. Those were basic maintenance items. Outside of my work for WDIV, I have also been working for the last three years to get a super-secret invention to market. I teach a communication-workshop to corporations. I have a variety of charities and community organizations that I work hard with to give my personal attention to and to use my public platform to promote their good works. I’d meet friends to reconnect over martinis and meet potential business alliances over dinner. I’d meet with sources for my news stories for breakfast. When I had a moment, I would work on any one of the two screenplays or TV pilot I was writing simultaneously. Every single day was a jumble of meetings, engagements, work to get on the air, more meetings, engagements—in bed by 11:30pm, if I was lucky and then rinse, wash, repeat the next day. Weekends were generally filled with speaking engagements or emceeing galas and fundraisers for the organizations I cared deeply about. And my most important job for the last 12 years has been as a wife and a stepmother.

Those weeks I had something to do before and after work, every single day—my stepdaughter and I would call Hell-Weeks. It was exhausting, but I had become accustomed to spreading myself thin, because I had a whooooole lot I wanted to get done in this brief lifetime.

A typical day for me was to wake up between 4 and 4:16 in the morning. I rarely used an alarm clock. That just happens to be my natural wake-up time, no matter what time I managed to get to bed. I’d check work emails and communicate with my producers and managers. I would check emails for my two additional business projects. I would jump in the shower and was often out the door by 6:30am because I took my first breakfast meeting before 7:30am—usually in Southfield. My hard out-time for morning extra-curricular meetings was 8:30 because I like to be the first reporter into the morning editorial meeting at the station at 9am. Enroute, to the studio in Detroit, I would knock out a few meetings on my cell phone or catch up with my mother or sister. By 6pm, I was usually off to a meeting or public speaking engagement. And I have been happily on that hamster wheel most every day of the week for the past two and a half decades as a reporter for WDIV Local 4.

My husband, a fire chief, had his own crazy schedule of running his department, meetings, community work—and yes, being a great husband and father. We would often pass one another in our hallway at home and say, “Hi, Roomie”. People laughed at us when we told them that we rarely actually saw one another, except when he was in a tux and we met at events together.

And then it stopped. Not a slow rolling stop through a traffic sign, but a dead stop as though I was speeding through life up a hill and had suddenly encountered a red light. It was that kind of slam-on-the-breaks screeching tires halt. March 14, 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic shut down the world, along with my hamster wheel.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)

It all evaporated. The mani-pedi appointments went away, along with the speaking engagements, the in-person meetings and even the long commute to work, as I began what would become a year of working mostly from home during the Covid close-down.

In those beginning days, Johnny and I did grocery shopping together. It was the ultimate act of teamwork, as we strategized how to get basic food, water and toilet paper necessities. It was terrifying in those early days, especially because people still recognized me, even in a mask and would still approach me to say hello—often while wearing their mask around their mouth, instead of their nose. After the first two weeks, Johnny asked me to stay home and let him handle the shopping—to minimize risk to our household.

The first thing I noticed about two weeks after the shut down was that my left pinkie toe had lost feeling. I wondered if I had bumped it running up and down the stairs or during a rare stint of house cleaning. After several months, I realized that, in fact, half my left foot had lost most sensation. I reluctantly decided to venture out of the safety of my home to get it checked out. Two MRIs later and it was discovered that I had a pinched nerve because of a narrowing of my spine. It turns out that my foot had likely been numb for some time, but I just didn’t notice because of the 6″ high-heel shoes that I wore for hours at a time at various meetings and events—and the sheer pace of running to exhaustion.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)

Now my home confinement was expanded to physical therapy several times a week with traction, in an attempt to avoid spinal surgery. Covid had slowed me down long enough to discover a health problem and get it addressed before it destroyed my quality of life not much further down the road I’d been traveling.

My stress level was through the roof. I was worried about my stepdaughter who was doing remote schooling from home at a critical time in her life—the year she applies to colleges. My husband was working in a community where COVID was rampant. He was trying to protect his firefighters, serve his community and get home to his house-bound family without inviting the virus inside with him. I was worried about my co-workers, some of whom by necessity were still moving throughout the community. I was worried about people losing their livelihoods and their homes and their stations in life. I was worried about my 80-something year-old mother and my brother and my sister who felt like they were millions of miles away. I watched the daily leaderboard of Covid deaths and illnesses around the world and felt each tick-up in numbers as a personal dagger. I had time to envelope myself in the social injustices of our Nation and I swam in them and ruminated over them and became not just angry, but enraged. I was worried about the people who didn’t take the pandemic seriously—spreading it to those who did—jeopardizing my husband and everything we had built together, along with other health care workers and first responders and grocery workers and essential workers who were running on their own hamster wheels of Hell. And because my busy life had come to a halt, I had plenty of time to swim in my many worries in flannel pajamas—and I was sinking.

And then I decided on a bold move. I decided to buy myself a kiln and teach myself ceramics. It was just an iddy biddy, teeny tiny kiln, but Johnny was not pleased, at all, that I was bringing in a piece of machinery that heated to up to 2-thousand degrees. All he could see was me burning down the garage. I mean, this is a guy who patrols my home office

looking for pieces of paper towel and stray documents resting on the cable box as a fire hazard—and now I wanted to bring in a heating implement that would get so hot it could turn clay into metal and glass.

Johnny bit his tongue, walked with me through safety procedures, swam around the kiln like a shark to gauge its radiant heat—and supported my attempt to keep myself from going stir crazy by learning something new.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)

I started with bronze precious metal clay and then moved to gray grog and then to Amaco white #25. Each clay had its own characteristics. It had its own way of operating. Its own specific and interesting personality and I found myself making friends with the many different kinds of clay.

My first attempts of making anything were disastrous. I’m nosy and my fingers are nosy. And I would find myself touching the drying ceramics so much that I would bump them or break them. I couldn’t figure out the proper consistency of ‘slip’ to bind my pieces together. I tracked bits and pieces of clay from the bedroom across the house to the kitchen and back. It seemed like my cell phone would always ring when I was in the middle of a delicate ‘procedure’ and because I’m nosy, I couldn’t just let the phone ring—I had to answer it to see what was going on in the outside world to the detriment of my project. It was rapture. Plain and simple. I was learning something new and loving every single, solitary moment of it—because clay was breaking my sense of enforced solitude.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)

During my workday, I was excited to complete my virtual interviews, get on the air and then get back to my clay-dates. I was still getting many other things done. A few of my favorite organizations had virtual events that I could Zoom into from my home office to emcee, instead of zooming to get there after work. I still worked on my writing and business projects virtually, and I was saving time and money in the process. And every second I saved not racing hither and yon, I spent with my new love, clay.

My stepdaughter and I got to know one another on a deeper level as we navigated our lives inside our home. Saturday mornings, without having an appearance-maintenance appointment to get to, I had time to lay in bed and talk to my husband beyond what bills were getting paid. I learned more about his childhood and random stuff I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know, until we suddenly had time to talk about nothing in particular.

Because now we were seeing one another more often and had more opportunities to chat face-to-face, we made a point to remind ourselves and our daughter to be thankful and grateful because he and I still had jobs and salaries. And so, we found real and meaningful ways to help our neighbors who weren’t essential workers or able to work from home. The three of us worked on a food-raiser project for my favorite group of nuns in Detroit. We helped friends not as fortunate as we. We found ways to stay engaged in our communities, while keeping our physical distance. The very small things we were able to do to help ease the suffering of others, however, seem to just give me more to worry about.

And while I could not peel myself away from the many worries I continued to accumulate in the year of the pandemic, I found that when I worked with clay, many of those things melted away. When my hands were in clay, I was at peace. And then joy.

Every time I broke a project or spent hours and hours and hours working on a process and it went wrong—I was delighted because I had to figure out how to get it right. My wasp nest took 18 hours of painstakingly wrapping thousands of pieces of extruded clay around a balloon. It took 8 attempts to get it right—and it was ecstasy when I finally did. But it was also ecstasy when I got it wrong—because my brain felt reinvigorated by the challenge.

One night I walked into the bedroom as Johnny was working on budgets and I said, “Honey, I need to tell you something no husband wants to hear from his wife.”

Johnny looked up at me over his glasses to hear what I needed to announce.

I said, “I have fallen in love and the guy’s name is, clay.”

Johnny smiled at me and returned his eyes to his work and said, “I’m glad you’ve found something to keep you from going crazy.” He then gave me one of his wonderful, great big, firefighter-arms bear hugs and kissed me on the forehead. He returned to his work and said, “Just don’t tell anyone else that your new best friend is clay. It might sound a little sad”.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)

I don’t think it’s sad, though. I was lucky enough to find something good to learn during this horrendous pandemic year of learning so many bad things. I’m excited that I was able to dive into this new hobby to keep me from drowning.

It is so very painful to delete the names of friends from my cell phone, who’ve been lost to this horrible virus. So many—that I stopped deleting their names and just put the word, ‘deceased’ at the end of their name because I don’t want to forget that I knew those names when this is over. It is because of clay, every single day, for more than just a few moments, I can divorce myself from the many things that still worry me. I can take a moment to feel the hand of God stirring my blessings by showing me a new window when the doors of the world closed.

I feel so fortunate to still have my job and my home and my family safe and healthy. When I look outside my window, I no longer feel isolated. When I walk to the mailbox, I listen to the birds and enjoy the cold air and I feel alive again. I feel hopeful.

I have learned to find joy in small crevices in my teeny tiny world away from the hamster wheel.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)

Will I ever become a great artist or sculptor? Absolutely not. Will my friends run and hide come birthdays and holidays when I send them my creations as gifts? Most likely. I still have more than a hundred pounds of clay in my kitchen-studio, waiting for me to make my bowls with nose-spouts, my vases and the other kitchie ceramics that are piling up.

When this pandemic stuff is over, and if we all do our part, this will be over soon, will I go back to my crazy busy life? I hope not. There is so much more to life than running that hamster wheel. There is so much more to learn out there, that I haven’t even thought of yet. Covid has taught me creative ways to simply survive—one breath at a time and keep going.

There are so many ways to survive Covid. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Care about others and not just yourself. Pull courage and selflessness on and wear those qualities like a garment and stop touting selfishness as a badge of honor. Get the vaccine when it’s your turn.

I have also learned a few other ways to survive what has been the worst year of my life and the lives of so many others I care about, and for that, I’d like to thank a guy named, clay.

(Photo from Paula Tutman)
(Photo from Paula Tutman)

About the Author:

Paula Tutman is an Emmy award-winning journalist who came to Local 4 in 1992. She's a Peace Corps alum who spent her early childhood living in Sierra Leone, West Africa and Tanzania and East Africa.